mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org
Liz Shuler, the number two leader of the national AFL-CIO, and Sal Luciano, the Connecticut president. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

Mashantucket — One of the workshops at the Connecticut AFL-CIO’s two-day convention that opened here Thursday explored the lessons offered from “worker power resurgence,” a reference to labor’s extraordinary year of strikes and other work stoppages in 2018.

“We are living in an incredible moment for working people,” said Liz Shuler, one of the highest ranking women in the labor movement as secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO, its second in command. “They are speaking out and taking risks like we haven’t seen in years.”

The trend spilled into 2019 with an 11-day strike by 30,000 workers at Stop & Shop in New England and the continuing walkout of 50,000 autoworkers at GM plants. In 2018, 485,000 workers walked out to demand higher wages and fight cuts in benefits.

“Workers in every industry from teachers to tech are rising up and saying, ‘Enough is enough. Something has to change. Something has got to give,’ ” Shuler told an audience of 300 in a ballroom at Foxwoods Resort Casino, where employees are unionized.

But a question for labor is which metric says the most about the health of the American labor movement: The greatest number of strikes in 30 years, or the continued erosion in the number of workers represented by unions?

The national drop in the percentage of union members was slight, from 10.7% in 2017 to to 10.5% in 2018, but it is only half the 20.1% rate in 1983, the first year for which comparable union data are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In Connecticut, the percentage of union members fell from 16.9% to 16%.

Gov. Ned Lamont is to address the convention Friday, when he can expect applause for his support of legislation that raised the minimum wage from $10.10 to $11 on Tuesday, with a series of annual $1 raises until it reaches $15.

Off stage, Shuler said Thursday she sees a political and cultural shift favorable to unions. The spate of strikes comes at a time of greater activism on everything from the MeToo movement to marches demanding action on climate change.

In August, the Gallup poll found 64% of Americans approving labor unions, topping 60% for a third consecutive year — and up 16 points from its low of 48% in 2009, the second year of the Great Recession of 2008.

“People turning to the unions as a solution is coming back,” Shuler said.

Public school teachers struck in West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona, three of the worst-paying states for teachers.

“Those were very organic strikes,” Shuler said. “The members were truly leading from the ground up. It wasn’t like a leader from on high saying, ‘We shall strike now.’ It was definitely  the workers themselves. I would say a good metric for this kind of union momentum is the level of momentum at the ground level.”

One of her projects has been to lead the labor federation’s efforts to become more relevant to younger workers, which has included trying to organize video game developers, whom she says are pressed into working 14- and 16-hour days rolling out new games.

“This industry is three times the size of Hollywood, yet they have no rights on the job,” Shuler said.

Shuler said organizing in the tech sector requires labor to be “relevant to a workforce that might want or need different things.”

Marc Perrone, the leader of the UFCW, whose members struck Stop & Shop. mark Pazniokas / ctmirror.org

“I know tech workers are very much independent. Their politics are a bit different,” Shuler said. “They want to use their collective power to change corporate behavior just as much as they want to negotiate good wages.”

Shuler is the daughter of an electric utility worker in Oregon whose company was purchased by Enron. When Enron failed, her father lost the pension benefits he accrued over 40 years, she said. She followed him into the IBEW, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as an organizer in 1993.

Shuler is one of two women seen as likely successors to Richard Trumka, the 69-year-old president of the AFL-CIO. The other is Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants. Trumka’s term expires in two years.

Her speech Thursday echoed one given by Trumka at the AFL-CIO convention in Massachusetts last week.

“It’s an exciting time to be in the labor movement,” Trumka said. “Workers are rising. We are refusing to settle for less. And we are using every tool at our disposal to win what is fair. Earlier this year, when Stop & Shop proposed a contract that would’ve forced 30,000 UFCW members across New England to endure less health care, less retirement and less dignity, workers stood up and said no!”

Marc Perrone, the international president of the United Food and Commercial Workers, called the strike a huge success, winning the support of other unions and consumers. He dropped a plug for Shuler into his convention speech, calling her “the most competent secretary-treasurer the AFL-CIO ever had.”

Shuler no longer is coy about wanting to lead the AFL-CIO.

“Yes, I want to be considered for the job when the time comes,” Shuler said. “That’s kind of what I say as I just do my job and hope my work speaks for itself. And then when the time comes, I would love to be considered.”

With 6.5 million women in the federation, Shuler says the AFL-CIO is the largest women’s organization in the U.S.  If elected in two years, she would be the first woman to lead it.

Mark is the Capitol Bureau Chief and a co-founder of CT Mirror. He is a frequent contributor to WNPR, a former state politics writer for The Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer, and contributor for The New York Times.

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9 Comments

  1. The majority of strikes have been Public Sector Unions. People are tiring of these unions working hand-in-glove with politicians, to the detriment of the general population of taxpayers. These strikes are a desperate reaction by union bosses (who never seem to suffer) post-Janus decision. Many public sector unions still force their members to pay full dues, in violation of Janus.

    It’s time for all public sector unions to be banned, and well past time for union bosses, past and present, to be banned from holding public office. For that matter, the USA should be a ‘Right to Work’ nation.

    Full disclosure: I was a union member for much of my working life, some of which was in a closed shop, and served on a ‘negotiating committee’ (in name only, as it turned out). When not in a closed shop, I left the useless national union. They defended the worthless employees and ignored those of us who were adversely affected by those bums.

  2. Public Employee Unions have been obsolete since the 1950s. Holding the taxpayer as a financial hostage for the benefit of a few is bankrupting many States. Swear shops are history and unions now exist solely to pay the exorbitant salaries of the Union leaders.

  3. The statistics reported in the article about 2018 union membership are not detailed. For reference:
    The union membership rate of public-sector workers (33.9 percent)
    continued to be more than five times higher than that of private-sector
    workers (6.4 percent).
    The highest unionization rates were among workers in protective service
    occupations (33.9 percent) and in education, training, and library
    occupations (33.8 percent).
    https://www.bls.gov/news.release/union2.nr0.htm
    Seems that police and fire and teachers have the highest rates of unionization.
    Note that the rate of private sector unionization is only about 10% of the approval rate for unions.
    People who approve of unions in principle don’t seem to join them. I don’t know why.

  4. The unions are stuck in a time gone by and in the majority of cases, for the dues they charge, they offer nothing that is not protected by statute or regulation. The only positive thing unions might have been able to maintain is the defined benefit pension. Even there, despite these funds being millions in the red, the unions haven’t figured out that it’s not a sustainable benefit. One only needs to see the problem with CT’s public unions to which the State just keeps kicking the can down the road. We all know that if any private company behaved like the state, they would be hauled before the DOL and driven to bankruptcy to protect the worker. Not the State however…

    Other than paying dues to feed salaries to union leaders, unions really don’t protect any terminable offense or get any other real benefit that isn’t offered to non-union employees in the same company. Other than breeding mediocrity and banging the drum of rhetoric, what do they do for the worker today?

  5. Unions do, on occasion support “bums” in the work place. I’ve seen it myself many times. However, unions provide the service of getting good wages, decent benefits and some workplace protections. The problem for many Americans with Unions is that they have a mindset of “if I can’t get those wages and benefits, why should they?”. Not sure why that is. Organize a union in your workplace, volunteer as I did, to be on the committees etc. It’s not perfect, trust me, but a little job security, good wages and benefits are worthwhile. Especially in this age of 1% getting more filthy rich by the second while “you” slave away making them rich, and you try to make ends meet in a crappy apartment with two kids you worry about feeding. Unions aren’t “all bad” as the wealthy want you to think.

    1. I guess we’re all jealous about something. You say that many Americans are jealous of unions, and then you call out the “filthy rich” 1 percenters.

      1. I bet 90% of the population would like better wages… That appears to me to be “many Americans”. Bet the 1% don’t need a job, or a union to help them get their “wages”. Sorry if you’re one of the rich folks. I know you are not filthy.

  6. The worn out proletariat schtick was a nice sell in the sweat shop era but doesn’t resonate with many today. I agree that public unions and their unholy Democrat alliance is bankrupting blue states. In Connecticut, 100,000 union and retired do well and the other 3.4 million of us pay for this alliance through our taxes. The strikes are sickening and serve to weaken the sricken company’s competitive position.

    Is it any wonder that union membership rates in this country continue to decline?

  7. The Brutal Truth: Here is homework assignment for those that do not truly understand the breadth and scope of “Organized Labor”. First, go see the new movie “The Irishman”. Even better, read the book. Second, go to the “Teamsters” website and click on “Divisions” to truly understand how deep and wide they go. Lastly, recognize that “Jimmy Hoffa’s” son is the current head of the teamsters. Now, sit back in your chair, ponder what you just learned….and connect the dots.

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